Parashat Vayehi – Divine Providence and Human Responsibility

הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי

 

Parashat Vayehi records the final moments of the lives of both Yaakov and Yosef. From Yosef’s very first appearance in the Torah, his life and Yaakov’s are intimately connected. His birth signifies to Yaakov that the time has come to leave Aram and the house of Laban (Beraishit 30:25). The beginning of Yosef’s narratives are explicitly part of Yaaakov’s story: “אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף”, “These are the generations of Yaakov; Yosef..[1]” (Beraishit 37:2). Beraishit Rabah (84:6) lists some twenty parallels between their lives, from being born to barren mothers and working as shepherds to living outside the Land of Israel and raising a family there, and that list isn’t even exhaustive. The two characters are so tightly interwoven that one can hardly appreciate one without understanding the other[2].

After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers come to him to convince him not to kill them (Beraishit 50:15-19). Certain that he only stayed his hand out of respect for their father, they tell Yosef that Yaakov commanded him not to kill them, and offer themselves as his slaves. Yosef responds to them, saying, “אל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי”, “Fear not; for am I in the place of God? ”. This phrase, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים” shows up exactly one other time in the entire Tanakh.

Rachel, unable to have children, came to Yaakov to say that he must give her a child or she will die (Beraishit 30:1). Yaakov’s anger flares against her and he says, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן”, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” (Beraishit 30:2). Thus this phrase spans the entirety of Yosef’s life, from before his birth until after his father’s death.

These two uses of the same phrase are similar on the surface, but they have vastly different implications. While both Yaakov and Yosef are saying that ‘א is in control, they have rather opposite intentions. Yosef finds himself in a position of total control over his brothers. He is the Royal Vizier of a country where his brothers are living as guests. Their father, out of respect for whom he kept secret their nigh-murderous actions (Beraishit 37), has died, leaving Yosef free to act with impunity. The time is ripe for his vengeance. Despite all of that, he tells them that he is not in place of ‘א. He is not simply stating that out of humility he will not take revenge, but rather he is making a point about the nature of history and the need for revenge. The brothers are concerned that because they did him wrong, Yosef will respond in kind (Beraishit 50:15, 17). Yosef tells them that they don’t need to fear him because he is not in place of ‘א, and that while they were planning to do evil, ‘א was planning good (Beraishit 50:19-20). Thus he will not be taking vengeance because there is no need; his brothers tried to do something bad, but ‘א’s plan meant that they actually did something good. Regardless of what he, and they, may have thought was best course of events, ‘א is the one who decides what that really is .Yosef sacrifices his sense of entitlement on the altar of ‘א’s control of history.

Yaakov’s situation is totally different. Rachel comes to him asking for him to give her a child, and he lashes out at her, saying that he is not ‘א that she should come to him for a child. Instead of giving up his sense of entitlement, Yaakov gives up his sense of responsibility. He actually says that ‘א is the one withholding children from Rachel (Beraishit 30:2). It’s not Yaakov’s fault, it’s ‘א’s. The Midrash in Beraishit Rabah (71:7) highlights this with a fascinating expansion of their conversation. The midrash depicts Rachel pointing to Yitzchak and Avraham and asking Yaakov why he didn’t act like they did when their wives couldn’t have children. Yaakov deflects the Yitzchak question by saying that he already has children whereas his father didn’t, which leads directly to Rachel mentioning Avraham to her eventually giving of her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife. However, bypassing the question by Yitzchak ignores the whole point of the comparison: Yitzchak tried to help his wife have children, by praying to ‘א on her behalf (Beraishit 25:21), and Yaakov didn’t. While no one would maintain that Yaakov is the one in charge of whether or not Rachel is able to have children, that’s not within his power, the midrash here draws out the point that Yaakov also doesn’t try anything that is within his power. Yaakov points to ‘א’s control because that way it’s not his fault, that way he doesn’t have to take responsibility.

The Tanakh doesn’t put anything outside of ‘א’s power. He created the world and He does miracles. But it just as clearly values human choice and initiative (Devarim 30:19). In no place does it bother to resolve this contradiction, as the Torah is more interested in the way Man lives a life of ‘א than in purposeless philosophizing[3]. That said, its opinion on such matters is still evident from analysis of the experiences it records. In this case, as the midrash indicates, the Tanakh’s opinion is more in line with Yosef than with Yaakov. Yosef locates ‘א’s Providence in the Past. Everything that has happened has been according to the Will of ‘א. Based on this, he makes his choices about the actions he will be taking in the Future. In contrast, Yaakov sees ‘א as being in complete control of the Future, and thus Yaakov’s actions are meaningless. Yaakov doesn’t try to attain a child for Rachel because that’s entirely up to ‘א. And while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s not how the Tanakh wants us to live. We are supposed to take responsibility for our actions. In a certain sense, we’re supposed to live as if there is only Divine Providence in the Past, as if ‘א has no stake in the future. The world we live in, all our natural abilities and everything that we have received, these are all things we should see as functions of Divine Providence. But what we do with these thing? That is up to us. We don’t get to say that ‘א will just take care of us, that we don’t have to do our part. The whole concept of the Torah and Mitzvoth being given to Man is based off the idea that ‘א wants us to take certain actions. Leaving it up to ‘א is not an option. “הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה” (Mishnah Avoth 3:15).

[1] Translations are from mechon-mamre.org

[2] For an understanding of Yosef’s life as a consequence of Yaakov’s theft of the brakha from Esav, and subsequent activites, see Rav Amnon Bazak’s book מקבילות נפגישות, Chapter Sixteen.

[3] The Torah is not Man’s Theology so much as it is God’s Anthropology. ~A.J. Heschel, God In Search Of Man

Advertisements

One thought on “Parashat Vayehi – Divine Providence and Human Responsibility”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s